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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                H9
Alexei watched the Commissar for days on end, trying
to fathom the source of his inexhaustible cheerfulness.
There could be no doubt that he was enduring frightful
suffering. As soon as he fell asleep and lost control of
himself he began to moan, throw himself about and grind
his teeth, while his face was contorted with pain. Evident-
ly, he was aware of this and tried not to sleep in the
day-time, he always found something to do. But when
awake he was always calm and even-tempered, as if he
suffered no   pain   at all. He   talked   leisurely with the
surgeons,   cracked jokes   when   the   latter   tapped and
examined the injured parts of his body, and only by the
way his hand crumpled his bed sheet and by the beads
of perspiration that broke out on the bridge of his nose
was it possible to guess how difficult it was for him to
restrain himself. The airman could not understand how
this man could suppress such frightful pain and muster
such energy, cheerfulness and vivacity. Alexei was all the
more keen on solving this riddle, for in spite of the in-
creasing doses of drug that he was getting he could no
longer sleep at night, and sometimes lay with open eyes
until morning, biting his blanket to suppress his groans.
More and more often and persistently during the
surgeon's inspection he heard the sinister word
"amputate". Feeling that the frightful day was approach-
ing, Alexei decided that without feet life would not be
worth living.
And that day came. On one of his visits, Vasily Vasi-
lyevich stood for a long time tapping Alexei's livid and
totally insensitive feet and then, abruptly straightening
his back and looking straight into Alexei's eyes, he said:
"They must come off!" And before the airman, turning
deathly pale, could utter a word, the professor repeated
sternly: "They must come off! Not another word, do you
hear? Otherwise you are done for! Do you understand
He stalked out of the ward without even glancing at
his retinue. An oppressive silence filled the ward.
Meresyev lay with petrified face and wide-open eyes.
Hovering before him, as if in a mist, were the livid*